Embracing the Cailleach

As I prepared for my hysterectomy, I kept seeing articles about how to cope with sorrow and regret. I can understand young women mourning the loss of their fertility, but at 44, I can’t see grieving for organs that hurt me for decades. If a person treated me the way my reproductive system did, I’d be shopping for hydrofluoric acid and Rubbermaid tubs.

Apparently some women my age are devastated by the notion of reaching menopause a little ahead of schedule. They fear losing their femininity — or worse, their value — along with what’s left of their fertility.

I blame our society. We portray postmenopausal women as feeble, unattractive, or daft figures to be pitied, patronized, or ignored.

I’ve been researching a lot of Celtic folklore lately, and one thing I’ve found striking is its reverence for older women. The youthful goddess Brigid ruled the spring and summer, but the Cailleach — a Gaelic word that translates to “hag” or “crone” — governed the winter months. In the stories I’ve read, the Cailleach is a strong, creative, sexually confident goddess, unfettered by the threat of pregnancy, the discomforts of menstruation, or the demands of motherhood and imbued with the wisdom of experience.

Imagine what would happen to the patriarchy if women took our cues from such a figure. Imagine what would happen if we stopped apologizing for our own longevity, quit measuring our worth by fertility or looks, and embraced the freedom and power that come with age.

There are legitimate reasons to be upset about a hysterectomy. It hurts. It’s tiring. It’s expensive. One in three women will have hysterectomies by age 60 — a number I imagine would plummet if our government could be arsed to spend as much money funding research into fibroids and endometriosis as it spends on security to protect Donald Trump while he farts around in New York and Florida. (Perhaps I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” essay one too many times, but I can’t help suspecting that if a third of all men had to have reproductive organs removed by age 60, we’d declare a national emergency.)

But while I’m frustrated that it was necessary, I can’t quite bring myself to regret a surgery that ended 30 years of pain and inconvenience and accelerated my entry into the comforts of cronedom.

I am not afraid of aging.

I am not afraid of becoming the Cailleach.

Bring it.

Emily

Ask the Hippie: Controlling Hot Flashes

Q. You had your ovaries removed during your hysterectomy. How bad are the hot flashes, and what are you doing about them?

A. For about a week after surgery, I kept the hot flashes to three or four a day, but the frequency (12 to 15 a day) and intensity spiked as I started feeling better and drifted away from the carefully planned, phytoestrogen-heavy meals I’d prefabbed before my surgery. When I started eating right again, the hot flashes settled back down to manageable levels.

Phytoestrogens occur naturally in most plants. Soybeans are among the richest sources; other good sources include black beans, peanuts, ground flaxseed, oats, tree nuts, and sweet potatoes.

Here are five easy ways to boost your phytoestrogen intake:

Source 1: Smoothies. Blend together half a frozen banana, a cup of frozen berries, two tablespoons of powdered peanut butter, two tablespoons of ground flaxseed, orange juice (I freeze mine in ice-cube trays and throw a few cubes in a smoothie), a cup of soymilk, and a little water. These are loaded with protein, fiber, and phytoestrogens and make quick breakfasts, especially if you assemble the frozen ingredients in advance and freeze them in individual containers.

Source 2: Oatmeal. Microwave half a cup of old-fashioned oatmeal with a quarter-cup each of nuts and dried cranberries, a pinch of cinnamon, and as much water as needed to reach the consistency you like. Sweeten with honey, brown sugar, or — for an extra dose of phytoestrogens — a half-cup of applesauce. Rich in protein, fiber, and phytoestrogens and nice on mornings that are too cool for smoothies.

Source 3: Soynut butter. Made for little kids with peanut allergies, soynut butter looks and sort of tastes like peanut butter. I spread some on a whole-wheat mini-bagel and add a tablespoon or so of marshmallow creme to make a soy-based Fluffernutter for breakfast.

Source 4: Baked sweet potatoes. Bake ’em in a slow cooker for a few hours. Top with butter and either brown sugar and cinnamon (for a sweet treat) or salsa and a little lime juice (for a savory snack).

Source 5: Veggie corn dogs. Morningstar Farms makes these. They’re 150 calories apiece take a minute and a half to nuke, and taste like regular corn dogs. Easy lunch on busy days.

Beyond that, I try to drink plenty of water, eat popsicles, and wear a cooling scarf in warm surroundings.

Emily

Ask the Hippie: Surviving a Hysterectomy without Opioids

Q. A hysterectomy is major surgery. How did you get through yours without opioids, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

A. Opioids are magnificent painkillers, but I can’t keep them down, and the last thing I wanted was to have my stomach acting up immediately after abdominal surgery, so my doctor prescribed 800 mg of ibuprofen every 8 hours instead.

The medicine worked pretty well when I remembered to take it. More helpful than the ibuprofen, I think, were two tips I picked up from HysterSisters, which is a pretty good resource.

Tip 1: Use an abdominal binder to support the incisions and keep your internal organs from squirming around too much. I didn’t have a binder, but the extra-wide Ace bandage I’d used to support a ribcage injury years ago made a serviceable substitute.

Tip 2: Get a couple of those flat ice packs that are designed to go in lunchboxes. Keep one in the freezer, tuck the other between the top and bottom layers of your bandage, and rotate them out as needed. Instant relief.

At its worst, my pain really wasn’t any worse than moderate cramps, and by skipping the opioids, I avoided the constipation and mental fog that come with prescription painkillers. The former does not play well with abdominal incisions, and the latter makes me nervous, so I was just as happy to dodge those bullets.

I was a little concerned about the risk of inflammation, so the week before my surgery, I made myself a big batch of those frozen fruit bars I use to cool down after a workout. To make them, you just puree frozen berries, which have anti-inflammatory properties, with enough cranberry juice to make a pourable liquid, pour it into molds, and freeze it. I figured the cranberry juice would also reduce my risk of catheter-induced bladder infections. Bonus: The frozen treats made a pleasant antidote to hot flashes.

Hope that’s useful to somebody.

Emily

Problem solved.

I have struggled with painful gynecological problems on and off for decades. During that time, I have tried every imaginable treatment, from medical to spiritual, with varying levels of success. The Pill kept most of the obvious symptoms at bay for several years, but as I entered perimenopause last year, it became less and less effective, until one bright afternoon this spring, my uterus decided to eject an endometrial cast the size of a hamster through my undilated cervix.

After roughly 30 years of highly unpleasant symptoms, I have the pain threshold of a rhinoceros on heroin — especially where my reproductive system is concerned — but on a standard pain scale of 1 to 10, passing an endometrial cast ranks somewhere around a 37, which is obnoxious even by my standards.

About five weeks later, I managed to get an appointment with a gynecologist in Clovis, who promptly scheduled me for a June 6 hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the uterus, tubes, and ovaries).

The surgery went very smoothly, as has my recovery thus far. I had some post-op pain for several days immediately following the procedure, but nothing severe — the worst of it felt about like moderate cramps, which lasted for two or three days, and within a week, I could sit at my desk for a few hours or walk several blocks with minimal pain. Not bad, considering I can’t take opioids and had to tough it out on Advil and ice packs.

When I had my stitches taken out last week, my doctor gave me a copy of the pathology report. No wonder I felt like crap; I had a uterus full of fibroids (10 of ’em), cysts all over both ovaries, and endometriosis gluing my right ovary to my uterus.

At this point — 19 days removed from surgery — I feel almost normal again. I tire easily, which is annoying. I’m not allowed to lift anything heavy or walk any dogs for several more weeks. It’ll be a while before I’m really comfortable with the idea of jogging on soft trails, much less asphalt streets (though I’m considering buying a cheap elliptical to use in the meantime). And in the absence of ovaries, I’ve had some spectacular hot flashes (which I’m already having fairly good luck controlling with diet; more on that in a future post). But those are small prices to pay for a surgery that has eliminated several health problems that compromised my quality of life for many years.

Emily